"Gabrielle Holly spins her stories in a way that will take you on an emotional rollercoaster you'll never forget!"
~Paranormal Romance Junkies

Friday, June 7, 2013

Free Read: Chapter 1 of "Stage Fright" - Book 3 in the Ghost Encounters series

Hello Darlings! Here's a little sneak peek at "Stage Fright," Book 3 in my Ghost Encounters series.
Enjoy!
xoxo ~Gabrielle


Chapter One: Stage Fright by Gabrielle Holly
The three ghost hunters stood on the downtown sidewalk watching the waning afternoon traffic. Bridget O’Malley and Mike Briggs huddled close to each other, and Toni Bianchi shifted from foot to foot to stay warm. The lampposts were decked out with wreaths and garlands, and fat snowflakes drifted down from the grey November sky.
Toni pulled her coat collar up around her ears and looked at the old movie theatre on the corner across the street. The marquee wrapped around the façade at a right angle. Removable letters spelled out 'For Sale' where movies and their stars were once announced. Rising thirty feet from the centre of the sign was the name of the theatre, its letters stacked one on top of the other, 'Bijou'. Hundreds of round bulbs and dozens of empty sockets hinted at what the place must have looked like in its prime. Toni could almost imagine the front of the building illuminated with chasing lights.
"It’s cute, Mike," she said to her sometime real estate agent.
"Wait until you see what it looks like inside!" he said with his usual unbridled enthusiasm.
"So, it’s in pretty good condition?" Toni asked, not bothering to hide her scepticism.
Mike shrugged. "Nothing that a little paint and spit polish can’t fix. I’ve always wanted to own a theatre and this one was a steal."
"And haunted?" Bridget asked, stealing the words from Toni’s mouth.
"Naturally, babe! Well, if you listen to the locals, it’s more like ‘cursed’, but nothing we can’t handle. Right, ladies?"
Bridget ran her fingers through her long, red hair. "I think I’ll reserve judgement until we see exactly how haunted it is and how much this is really going to cost."
Toni nodded. She was relieved that she didn’t have a financial interest in this adventure. Last year Mike had talked her into buying a very rundown—very haunted—ice cream parlour, sight unseen. She’d invested blood, sweat and tears into renovating that monstrosity. She’d also spent every penny of the proceeds from her previous investment—a very rundown, very haunted inn—on the restoration.
With the help of the Paranormal Research Team she’d managed to get the ice cream parlour up and running and rid it of its resident ghosts. The project had also brought Thomas Becker back into her life. She’d fallen hard for the handsome television ghost hunter when he and the team had come out to investigate the hauntings at the inn.
That chapter of their affair had ended badly. The sweet shop had given them a second chance, but now she feared the relationship was unravelling again. They’d invited a third person into their lives—and into their bed. Liam Greco owned the shop next door to the parlour and her attraction to him had been immediate and intense.
Under the spell of paranormal energy, the three had engaged in a mind-blowing ménage a trois—complete with ice cream and candy. The place between Toni’s thighs tingled when she remembered Thomas binding her wrists with long strings of liquorice laces and Liam licking sweet, sticky chocolate sauce from her body. The encounter had left all three of them wanting more and they’d decided to have a go at making a life together.
Fantasising about living in a romantic triad and actually doing it had turned out to be two very different things. Toni’s powers as a psychic medium and Liam’s as a telepath only complicated matters. There were inherent problems with having a lover who could read your mind. Soon after starting the affair, jealousy had flared between the two men. Liam had told Toni he could tell that her feelings for Thomas were much stronger than her feelings for him, and Thomas had said the psychic connection between Toni and Liam made him feel like an outsider.
Neither of the men had touched her for weeks and when she fantasised, it was about being alone with Thomas. Nothing she could do could hide those feelings from Liam and she’d seen the changes in him as his resentment grew. For his part, Thomas became increasingly distant. He’d agreed to enter into the three-way relationship, but it had soon become clear to Toni that he’d only done so to make her happy. Toni felt caught in the middle and when Mike had told her about his theatre project, she’d jumped at the chance to get some distance. Thomas wouldn’t be joining them. He was in the Twin Cities for a book signing and Toni was glad for the break. It would give her time to clear her head—and weigh her choices.
A tingle crawled up Toni’s spine, bringing her back to the here and now. It was the unmistakable feeling that someone was behind her. She looked over her shoulder to find a woman standing on the sidewalk a few feet away with a camera to her face. The woman wore a sleeveless sundress with a fitted bodice and a skirt that flared out over yards of crinoline. She seemed oblivious to the snow falling around her. Toni’s gaze travelled downwards over bare legs. Bobby socks and saddle shoes.
Ghost. Toni thought, concluding that she was sharing the sidewalk with a spirit and not a living, breathing person. The spectre brought down her camera and stared right through Toni. Toni nodded at her and when the woman didn’t react, she concluded that it was a residual haunting—leftover energy from a past event that mindlessly played itself on an endless loop. By the looks of it, the photographer had originally strolled this street sometime in the 1950s.
She didn’t bother to ask Mike and Bridget if they’d seen the phantom. She knew they wouldn’t be able to. They were standing beneath the lamppost, waiting for the traffic light to change. The ghost cocked her head to one side as if planning her next shot then walked towards the corner. When she passed through Toni’s body, it took her breath away. Toni watched as the spirit paused at the curb, looked both ways, then crossed the street. Two cars drove through her without making so much as a ripple in the image. The ghost stood in front of the theatre for a moment, then snapped some shots looking straight up at the soaring Bijou sign from below. She crossed the side street and took pictures from that angle, then moved up the block, pausing frequently to bring her camera back up to her face. At one point she stopped and waved at some long-gone acquaintance.
A tug at her coat sleeve caused Toni to glance away from the residual. "Light’s green, Bianchi," Mike said. As they crossed, Toni searched the shadows of the side street, but the ghostly photographer had disappeared. This type of sighting had become more frequent as Toni had got a handle on her abilities. They were almost exclusively visions of climactic events, things that had generated so much energy in the first occurrence that they were permanently stamped on a place. She wondered what could have produced such excitement to create this one. Maybe some matinee star had been visiting the little town of Travois, Wisconsin to promote a movie.
Once they had reached the front door, Mike produced a ring of keys with a flourish and Toni couldn’t help but smile at the expectant look on his face. "All right, Briggs, let’s go see what you’ve gotten yourself into."
* * * *
If the lobby was any indication, the renovation would take a bit more than paint and spit polish, but not by much. Toni instantly fell in love with the art deco bones of the place. Glossy faux ebony columns ran up the walls from floor to ceiling. The concession stand was a horseshoe-shaped showpiece of chrome and glass. Faded remnants of the original carpet—with a large-scale pattern of stylised shells and fans—still clung to the concrete floor. Two staircases framed the doors leading into the screening room and flared out at the bottom steps. The metal handrails were understated works of art with gentle curves woven into the design.
"They used to call them ‘movie palaces’," Mike said.
Toni nodded. "I can see why. It’s really wonderful, Mike. Well done!" She pointed to a large square that had been cut out of the carpet. "What’s that all about?"
Mike grinned. "I found a company out East that does reproductions of old carpet patterns for commercial use. It should be here in a couple of days so we’ve got to have the old stuff ripped out and have everything scraped and painted before then."
"A couple of days?" Bridget shouted, widening her green eyes.
"Yep. And I’ve got a few hundred light bulbs for the marquee ordered too, so we’ll have to get an electrician in. Then I’ve got a tile guy doing the bathrooms and…"
"And?" Bridget said.
Mike swept her into a hug. "Don’t worry. I’ve got everything under control."
"Mm hmm," she replied.
Mike kissed her hard then pulled her towards the staircase. "C’mon you guys. Let’s go check out the lounge downstairs. It is so awesome!"
The women followed Mike down the steps and Toni realised that Mike thought almost everything in life was awesome. The staircase opened onto a low-ceilinged room. A fireplace fronted with green-tinted mirrors faced the stairs. To the right was a single door and to the left was a display case flanked by openings. One marked ‘Ladies’ and the other 'Gentlemen'.
Mike stood in the centre of the room as if guiding a tour. "So this is the lounge. There used to be red velvet couches and smoking stands down here. I’ve got those on order—the couches, I mean, not the smoking stands. I don’t think the fireplace works, but the electrician is going to wire it for some of those fake glowy logs."
"On order?" Toni and Bridget asked in unison.
"Of course! And over here," Mike said, gesturing to the display case, "is where they used to put posters for upcoming movies and live acts. Then in the ‘90s they started bringing in bands and that’s where they hung those announcements. When that was a bust, the historical society took it over and filled it up with all that stuff. There are some pretty cool things in there."
Bridget and Toni stepped over to the case. At the centre of the display was a photo of a doughy-faced man wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a fedora. He was grinning and had a fat stogie clenched between his teeth. "Who’s that?" Bridget asked.
"That’s Preston Stringman, the original owner. He was quite a character. He moved here from New York in the early ‘30s. Legend has it that he was drummed out of the East Coast for trying to compete with the mob during prohibition. He came to Travois intent on making his fortune in illegal booze with the theatre as a front. He set up a speakeasy in the backroom—I’ll show you that in a minute—but six months after he opened the doors they repealed the 18th Amendment and it was kind of a moot point."
Toni leaned in to examine the portrait. "What’s that in his hat?"
Mike tapped the glass. "A cigar lighter. He was working at a New York movie theatre near the financial district during the stock market crash of ’29. He pilfered it from the body of one of the poor souls that jumped from a window after losing his fortune."
"Nice," Bridget muttered.
"Yeah, he loved to brag about it being solid gold. He wore it in the hatband, rather than tucking it in his pocket, so people would notice and ask him about it. After alcohol was legal again and his plans got screwed up, he kind of lost interest in the theatre. He’d run movies, but he never really kept the place up. By the early 1950s he’d found a way to make money in real estate and was gone most of the time—spending the summers out East and the winters in Hawaii."
"That explains the shirt," Bridget noted.
"Right. It was kind of his shtick—that and the hat and the cigars. Then in ’55, another theatre developer came to town and built the Rialto directly behind the Bijou."
"Where the Food Co-op parking lot is now?" Toni asked.
"Exactly."
"What happened to it?"
"Burnt to the ground on opening night. Everyone got out of the Rialto okay, but the projectionist of the Bijou died. The fire started in the alley between the two buildings and when smoke started pouring into the Bijou everyone panicked and started running for the lobby. Witnesses said they saw the projectionist down by the stage at the exit door to the alley. Some of them said he was just trying to wave people away from the danger, but most claimed he was down there because he’d started the fire. Either way, he never made it out and the official police report said it was arson, and conventional wisdom was that he was responsible."
"We should head down to the station in the morning and see what they’ve got for records," Bridget said. Mike nodded.
Toni narrowed her eyes. "Why would he want to burn the place down?"
Mike pointed through the display case glass at Preston Stringman’s photograph. "In Stringman’s statement he said that moments before the fire broke out he’d gone up to the projection booth to can Kip. He said he’d found out that Kip was having an affair with his second wife, Bitsy. That’s her there."
Toni looked at the photo of the curvy redhead. "Pretty and young."
"Twenty years his junior," Mike confirmed.
Toni scanned the other pictures in the case. Most were artistic black and whites of the theatre. Each had the name P. Stringman printed in the lower right corner. "So he was a photographer too?"
Mike followed her gaze. "Oh, no. P. Stringman in this case was Priscilla Stringman—Preston’s daughter from his first marriage. She did some work for the local paper. Won some awards, I think. That one’s my favourite," Mike said, pointing to a shot of the Bijou sign taken from almost directly below.
Priscilla. So that’s your name, Toni thought.
"Okay ladies, the tour continues with the speakeasy."
Mike led them through the door opposite the display case and into an office stuffed with boxes and discarded furniture. A second door brought them to a narrow hallway which jogged left and opened into a small room. Mike turned to face them then pointed to the wall at his right. "Just so you can get your bearings, the fireplace in the lounge is on the other side of this wall. When they had live acts, this space doubled as a dressing room. Behind me there’s a small staircase up to the stage. It was Stringman’s speakeasy for about five minutes."
Toni glanced at the opening leading to the stage and as she turned away she caught movement in the corner of her eye. Her attention snapped back to the stairs, but there was nothing there. A chill ran through Toni and she was glad when Mike suggested they continue the tour upstairs. She couldn’t get out of there soon enough.
* * * *
Toni looked over the balcony railing at the main theatre below. The heavy pleated drapes that lined the side walls were tattered and some of them were missing altogether. Where the wall was exposed, she noticed the faded hint of a mural. "What’s that Mike?"
Mike joined her at the railing. "Oh, that is so cool! They’re black light murals. It was a huge thing back when they were building these places in the ‘30s. As the audience was filing in they’d turn on black lights and the murals would glow—almost like 3D. The ones in here are paintings of a park with fountains and gazebos and people having picnics. I had a restoration guy look at them and he said the walls just need a good cleaning. He’s going to have some college kids from the art school come over and do the work. And if you look up, see how the ceiling is coved? It’s painted super dark blue and there are thousands of little dots of phosphorescent paint. The black light makes it look like a starry sky."
"Cool," Toni agreed.
Mike grabbed her hand and led her up the stairs to the back of the balcony where Bridget was waiting. "Acrophobia," she explained. "Me and heights just don’t get along."
Mike gave her a reassuring peck on the cheek then continued his tour. "To the right we’ve got the projection room. It’s the heart of the theatre." Toni and Bridget poked their heads inside the olive green room. Mike pushed past them and ran his hand over the huge machine in the centre. "And this, ladies, is the Whisper Reel Deluxe—the big mac-daddy of film projection units. It’s older than the two of you combined, but it’s a workhorse. I ran it through its paces and this kitten purrs! All I need is a new bulb and we’re in business."
"And you know this how?" Toni asked, thinking she already knew the answer.
"I worked in a movie theatre in high school."
"Of course you did," she said, not at all surprised. Mike’s resume was nothing if not varied. He’d worked as an emergency medical technician, a real estate agent, a cameraman, a soda fountain jerk and who knew what else.
The Jack-of-all-trades finally stopped petting his new toy and crossed to the space opposite the projection room. "And this is the VIP room. Movies were a big deal back in the day and the swells didn’t want to mix with the hoi polloi…"
"Swells?" Toni whispered to Bridget.
"Hoi polloi?" the redhead whispered back, "I think he’s been watching too many old films."
Mike pretended not to have heard, but Toni was pretty sure he had.
"Aaaaaanyway," he continued, "So the theatre owner would set them up in here with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, maybe a record player. They’d party before and after the movie and then during they’d sit on couches and watch through that window." He pointed to the huge pane of glass covering the wall overlooking the theatre. "This room is wired with a separate set of speakers too. It was also used for stars that came to attend premieres."
Toni could feel the entities in the room. She wasn’t uneasy, as she’d been in the secret room downstairs. The emotion in here was joyful and expectant. The warm, positive vibes washed over her and she was almost sorry when Mike asked her to follow him back downstairs.
"Alright, fearless spirit hunters," he said. "It’s getting late. Let’s set up the equipment, dim the lights and see if we can get any ghoulies and ghosties to make an appearance!"
****
Like what you’ve read so far? Buy “Stage Fright” today and find out what happens next. "Stage Fright" is available at all eBook retailers including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Total-e-Bound, All Romance eBooks and others!

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