Best of Texas Book Award: Tangible Spirits by Becki Willis
April 27, 2018
Smart dialogue, plenty of action, and a touch of the supernatural make this a must-read novel.
Tangible Spirits by Becki Willis has received the Best in Texas Book Award for a Paranormal novel. The award is presented by the Texas Association of Authors.
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Reporter Gera Stapleton has a difficult choice to make: write the story of a lifetime, or save the legacy of a town—and a man—she has come to love.
Assigned to an impossible story in Jerome, Arizona about a ghost named Mac, Gera knows it’s a fluff piece, at best, until a local man is murdered in the middle of town. When the townspeople blame Mac, she knows the killer is getting away with… well, murder.
Seeing the opportunity for a cover-worthy piece, Gera sets out to find the real killer. In a town filled with curiosities, she befriends a lonely old woman, butts heads with an ornery sheriff, falls for a sexy hotel owner, and uncovers an amazing tale about greed, deception, and family honor. And when the killer targets her as the next victim, an unlikely savior comes to her rescue.
Will she write the story that launches her career? Or will she honor a family’s legacy from the past?
Smart dialogue, plenty of action, and a touch of the supernatural make this a must-read novel. You’ll find yourself wondering Is it possible?Are there truly such things as tangible spirits, after all?
Dead was dead. Gera didn’t believe in ghosts.
That was why this assignment rankled her so. Why was she, of all people, assigned to a story about ghosts? The magazine might as well have sent her to the North Pole to interview Santa Claus himself.
It was bad enough being surrounded by desert. Miles and miles of barren terrain, the flat Arizona landscape broken only by scattered saguaro cacti and shrubs. No real trees to speak of. Plenty of bushy, thorny shrubs and desert plants. The most interesting thing she had seen so far was the odd warning sign for a wild donkey crossing.
With rays of heat beaming down from the cloudless azure sky, today promised to be a scorcher, but she could handle the heat. The dry, blustery wind was a nuisance, sweeping across her skin like sandpaper and playing havoc with her hair. Why had she even bothered with a comb this morning? She could simply add gel to the spikes and go for that edgy, badass look so many reporters favored.
Lord knew she needed all the edge she could get.
The further north she traveled, away from the armed cacti that stood like sentries along the roadside, the elevation climbed. The famed saguaros of the Sonora desert gave way to a multitude of prickly pear, intermingled with bushy shrubs and a few more trees. The Black Hills of Yavapai County rose in the distance, teasing the eye with variety, beckoning travelers onward.
Pulling Gera closer to her assignment.
“There are ghosts in them thar hills,” she drawled aloud. Her voice dripped with sarcasm.
“Your first big story with the rag, and it may be your last.” Gera gave voice to the pessimistic thought as she sped down the highway, racing toward the faraway mountains. She grumbled to an empty audience in her rented sedan, giving free reign to her frustrations. “I don’t know what Jillian was thinking, sending me in for this one. I wanted to cover the story on the new cancer hospital opening in Dallas. Seniority shouldn’t be the only deciding factor on who gets what story, should it? Enthusiasm should count for something. Believability should count for something! How am I supposed to give a fair and unbiased report on something I don’t even believe exists?”
Some people, such as her Aunt Geraldine, believed that lives were recycled. How else, her aunt insisted, did one explain déjà vu, that sense of walking into a building one had never been in before, and knowing its exact layout and feel, right down to the rear exit? The obvious answer, according to her aunt, was that one had been there before, in another life.
And how, her namesake wanted to know, did she explain love at first sight, if not for the fact that souls were already acquainted from another time, another life? How did she explain pets that were as smart as human beings, if not for reincarnation? Life was simply too precious to discard with the cessation of breath. Aunt Geraldine believed that when one host body died, the soul found another body in which to reside.
Other people, such as her grandmother, believed that upon death, souls were sent either to Heaven or to Hell, depending on one’s time here on Earth. The good, pious souls were granted eternal life. The disobedient were banished to the devil.
Gera liked the thought of eternal life, but she still had her doubts. Grams dragged her along to Sunday school when she was a little girl. Taught her about the Bible and the perils of good and evil. Yet her grandmother was also the one to tell her about the Easter Bunny and the magical Tooth Fairy, not to mention a jolly old elf that drove a team of miniature reindeer upon people’s rooftops. Grams—who never lied—had a theory about how one man could deliver presents to good little boys and girls around the world at seemingly the same time. Something about wind currents and the flux in temperatures worldwide, compounded by time zones and language barriers. The strange phenomenon caused some clocks to stall inexplicably, while others raced forward, bringing time to a virtual standstill for the course of one evening. Much to young Gera’s dismay, none of those fanciful notions panned out. Would the concept of Heaven be any different?
Still others believed in a third option. Some—though certainly not Gera Stapleton—believed that a person’s spirit could linger on Earth before crossing over to the other side. Something to do with unfinished business in life.
But did anyone ever have their lives pulled together and neatly tied with a bow? Didn’t everyone leave behind unfinished business? While Gera liked the thought of one last opportunity to right the wrongs she had done in life, even from the grave, the idea sounded no more plausible than streets paved in gold.
Her co-worker Ramon was one such believer. During a séance last fall, the seasoned reporter insisted he had spoken with a beloved relative who was taken from life too soon. Ramon volunteered as a ghost-walk tour guide in downtown Notre Dame. He refused to accept money for his time, saying it was an honor to walk among the spirits and share their stories. Her co-worker was sincere in his belief, as certain about ghostly spirits as Grams was about the Holy Spirit and Aunt Geraldine was about reincarnation.
In Gera’s mind, dead was just that—dead. No afterlife, no recycled spirits, no caught between worlds. Just dead.
She stewed for a while, railing against the injustice of it all. Ramon was the obvious choice for this story. His ‘08 Corolla had bumper stickers that said, ‘I see dead people’ and ‘I’d rather be ghost hunting.’ He watched the full array of television programs devoted to spirit sightings and haunted places. Ramon would’ve done this story better justice than she could. Even Gera knew that.
Ghost stories were all the rage these days. A few years ago, just the rumor of being haunted was a stigma hotels could little afford. These days, an in-house ghost meant instant fame and fortune.
The town of Jerome, Arizona was a perfect example. According to locals, ghosts freely roamed through the small town of less than five hundred people. Instead of scaring visitors away, tourists flocked to the mountainside community, hoping to see the visions for themselves. Television shows and ghost hunters alike joined the melee, eager to capture the spirits on film or meter. Not so long ago, the historic mining town was destined for extinction. Now it enjoyed new life through old spirits, and gave fresh meaning to the term ‘Arizona ghost town.’
The town even had its very own resident ghost, a friendly apparition named Mac. Residents spoke of him as if he were an old friend. However, a recent string of mischief and petty crimes had taken place in the small town, and rumor had it that Mac was to blame. When It Happens Magazine thought it was worth investigating, so they sent in their newest reporter, Gera Stapleton. They even booked her in one of the town’s more notoriously known haunted hotels.
“I just hope the ghosts don’t rattle their chains and moan all night long. I need all the beauty rest I can get.” She glanced into the visor mirror. “Especially with this hair.”
Half an hour later, Gera turned off the interstate. The terrain here was higher and dotted with green. Not nearly as high as the San Francisco Peaks in the distance, but at least the dirt swelled with hills and valleys, many of them congested with actual green, leafy trees.
Until now, Gera hadn’t realized how fond she was of the willowy giants. Trees reminded her of a simpler, gentler time, when she and her cousins climbed in the trees at their grandmother’s farm. They would hang upside down from the sturdy limbs, studying the clouds as they rolled across the sky on a lazy summer afternoon. Robbed a snack from crab apple and pear trees heavy with fruit. Built a fort in a favorite old oak, where they spent long hours slaying dragons and fighting off pirates, hiding from Indian attacks and enemy soldiers. And on rare occasions, when her male cousins agreed, they played house, where she stirred up dishes of mud, leaves, and pecans, and served them in salvaged bits of pottery and metal scavenged from the burn pile.
A smile lingered on Gera’s face as she recalled the fun they had over those long summer visits. The farm was gone now, sold to a developer who turned the orchards into a strip mall and the goat meadow into an apartment building. One of those upscale ones, with a coffee shop and deli on the ground floor, and boutiques that sold trendy clothing, scented soaps, and fake tans. Progress, they called it.
The further north Gera traveled, the more impressed she became.
“Oh, wow. Now this is gorgeous!” Gera wiggled excitedly in her seat, thrilled to see the impressive red rock formations looming ahead. She thought of all those old westerns her father liked to watch on Saturday afternoons, the ones with bigger-than-life heroes cast against backdrops just like these.
After stopping for a bite to eat in the picturesque town of Sedona, she hit the road with more enthusiasm. Iconic formations gave way to clustered canyons and foothills. As the elevation rose, so did her spirits. She passed through an idyllic canyon canopied by trees. Drove alongside a gurgling river stream. Gazed up at impressive rocky ledges on either side of the road. Hugged mountain curves and prayed no one crossed the yellow line that separated her lane from the oncoming traffic.
She hoped to reach Jerome before dusk. She needed daylight as she traversed the squiggled blacktop road weaving its way up Mingus Mountain. A series of switchbacks and sharp curves sharpened her awareness and set her nerves on edge. Going up wasn’t so bad. It was coming down that already worried her.
Signs along the roadway tracked her progress. Two more miles to Jerome. Another sharp curve, another incline. Another sign, this one announcing the altitude of five thousand feet. A few more twists, and she had just one mile to go.
The first glimpse of the town came into view. A few rooftops jutted through the trees, perched along a ledge on the side of Cleopatra Hill. The structures at the top of the mountain’s peak beckoned her, but after a half dozen switchbacks and yet another mile, she still hadn’t reached them. She passed a sign welcoming her to Jerome, Arizona, Elevation 5246, Founded 1876.
More buildings came into view, stacked one upon the other in layers against the mountain. Gera stared in amazement at the many tiers of the town. She had read somewhere that the town was propped against a thirty-degree slope, two thousand feet above the Verde Valley floor. Until now, she hadn’t realized how precarious thirty degrees would look. There had to be at least fifteen hundred vertical feet between the top and bottom tiers of the town.
“This could be interesting, in a slide-off-the-mountain kind of way,” she decided aloud. She peered through the windshield, trying to get a better look at the mountaintop ahead. “Maybe this gig won’t be so bad, after all.”
She made another curve and followed the one-way street up yet another hill. Hull Street led past a tiny string of old buildings, through parking spaces on either side of the street, past an oddly leaning stone structure, and to another small collection of buildings at the top of the hill. The town’s main street was one block over.
The one marked with all the crime scene tape and the coroner’s van.